Canyon Daughter – Ten Years On


My daughter has been to this canyon before. She was three years old then. Little Mary. She toddled on the coarse sand and bedrock, and navigated the shifting cobbles. And when she grew tired, she went on my shoulders. We were here in winter. She warmed her little hands on my neck.

That was another family adventure, another experience, another way to help Mary and her brother discover a world beyond their neighborhood. We had taken our children to the library, to movies, to swimming lessons. We had taken them to see a native American hoop dance, and to eat Chinese food with chopsticks. We had encouraged them to discover the larger world by these smaller encounters.


Ten years on, we are here in Paria Canyon again, in autumn: father and recently-turned-teenager daughter. Mary carries her own backpack this time. She gazes across the wide riverbed, to the red-rock walls coming down to the other bank. I wonder if she has any memory of this place – beyond what her brother has told her, beyond our reminiscing at the dinner table.

Today we leave the trailhead with three days and forty miles ahead of us – three days and forty miles between us and our car, parked at the Colorado River. A recently-made friend brought us to this upper trailhead this afternoon, shuttled us into the middle of the desert, and wished us well.

This is not a smaller encounter. In the first twenty minutes, we will go farther down this canyon than Mary once covered in one day. Over the next three days, we intend see the whole of Paria Canyon, to descend its entire length.


Ten years ago we walked at a three-year-old’s pace and ventured no farther than one mile from the trailhead. Ten years ago, on that winter day, we arrived at a trailhead devoid of cars. We stood in a still painting: no wind, no movement. Even this desert river remained frozen, gripped in a midwinter spasm.

Our kids stood on the margins and toss polished quartzite cobbles onto the ice. Some broke through. Others held.

On another day I might have hiked for miles in search of a spring or a high place to camp, or to move quickly across my map.

With Mary and her brother we didn’t hike for miles. On that day I was content with standing still, with watching the kids throw rocks.

Several miles from this trailhead, clear water pours from a sandstone wall. Another time, I had hurried down this canyon to find it. With little kids, we would not find this spring. We would not hurry to another place. We would only saunter.

The frozen stream meandered, touching the far side of the canyon, then bending and slowly reaching back to the near side. During monsoon rains, this river had swollen, had touched both sides of this canyon at once. I had been here then, with rust-red water up to my hips.

With the kids, we walked in the riverbed, on sand and silt and cobbles abandoned by greater floods. Then we were cut off; the stream had come back to this side of the canyon and had run along the bare sandstone wall. We found a game trail leading up to a rock shelf between the riverbed and the canyon rim.

It carried us higher and then too far from the riverbed. So I ran ahead to find an opening in the shelf that would bring us back to the canyon floor. Below me a series of sandstone grottos led back to the frozen riverbed.

I climbed down into the first grotto and waited. This first step was only waist high. I would help Mary here. Her brother would not ask for my help – he was six. Nate. He would scrape his knuckles and abrade his palms on this sandpaper surface, but he would not ask for help.

When Nate was three, we had brought him here, to this same place. I had carried him on my shoulders out of this canyon. This time Mary would go on my shoulders.

From the first grotto, I saw the kids coming toward me. Their eyes followed the trail to the rim. I stood still, waiting for them to look down into the grottos. Mary saw me first and walked toward me, all the while telling me of the cactus she had discovered. Nate said a cactus should only grow in the desert, and asked why one had appeared there. I wondered with him: how a cactus slept there in that frozen sand.

The kids slid into the grottos, denim scraping sandstone. They laughed and shouted to hear their voices muffled or amplified in each new secret room. There they heard themselves or the croaking of ravens. There they might have found a tissue-paper snakeskin or a charred stick or the half-circle fingerprint scribed by a wind-whipped blade of grass. There they would find fragments of the canyon.

In the riverbed the kids began tossing rocks again. My wife and I continued downstream. We commented on this playground of sand, cobbles and bedrock. Both playground and classroom.

We took a few steps and the kids called for us to wait. The canyon walls rose higher there: piers supporting the narrow boardwalk of pale blue winter sky.

Nate ran ahead, to the next bend. He had seen the cave he had visited when he was only three. “Aha!” he shouted, pointing downstream. “I’ve found something.” He named the great sandstone dome above the cave: Cave Mountain. He felt ownership in that place.

Three years before, we had climbed into the cave with Nate and had eaten our lunch in this desert alcove. On the day we brought Mary, the cave’s mouth was in the shade, and we would have to walk through slush and freezing water. I carried Nate across, then Mary. They asked if the water was cold. I told them I could hardly feel my legs, that they would have to carry me back across the river. They squealed and protested.

Nate walked slowly to the back of the cave. I wondered what he remembered there. He and Mary both drew in the damp sand and commented on the coolness of the ground. I carried them back into the sunlight, where they ran their hands across the dry sand again.

The kids were closer to the ground then, closer to the earth. Even as Mary went on my shoulders, she wanted to be on the ground again. She walked a few yards, went on my shoulders again, then saw a rock or stick and wanted to be on the ground again. We repeated this during our walk back to the trailhead.

We went two miles that day. On another day I might have gone farther. But I would have missed touching the smooth surface of a quartzite cobble. I would have missed hearing the plunk of rock breaking through ice. I would have missed the laughter of children. I would have missed the naming of Cave Mountain; I may not have stopped there.


Today, ten years on, Mary and I begin our forty-mile backpack trip through this same canyon. I hope we will stop, to throw rocks, to feel the sand, to pause for the descending call of a canyon wren.

The kids are drawn to the smaller components of this canyon, to the elements at hand. They flatten their palms against red-rock walls, or watch a piece of ice break free in the stream, or walk on a narrow sandbar. They find a smooth pebble, a lone cactus, a polished stick. They find these pieces, and so they find the canyon.


Mary and I hiked the forty miles in three days, much of our time right in the Paria River. We threw rocks into the mud. We heard canyon wrens. When we arrived at the Colorado River, we stopped at a convenience store in Lee’s Ferry and sipped ice-cold Dr. Peppers. You can see a video of the trip here:


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